Fuck Productivity

Whenever I meet someone new, particularly a woman, the uncomfortable question of what I do inevitably arises. The question always makes me a little sheepish. Well, uh, hmn, I phatically offer, I don't do very much. But in case she thinks I'm independently wealthy, I quickly dissuade her of any such notions. That is, I work as little as possible.

This is true: I don't work very much. One, I don't get or, for that matter, seek many gigs. And, two, I'm fast at what I do. I've always been a sprinter. I'd bang out an entire forty page chapter of my dissertation in a day, then toss it because it sucked, and start again. The same holds true for my corporate work. When I put my head down to do it, I do it. My five hours is an office jockey's 40 hours, if not more. I don't offer this as a brag; it's just a fact. I work quickly and efficiently. (Which is why I no longer charge by the hour; man, I left a lot of money on the table over the years charging by the hour.)

This alas leads to the next question from my new interlocutor: So what do you do with the rest of your time? No matter how many times I've been asked this question, my mind still reels with the sordid reality of what I indeed do; I laugh hysterically to myself; look away; and then offer, Uh, not much. I write, I guess.

Now, because I have a big nose and glasses and a fancy PhD and talk the way I talk, she generally assumes I spend my days bent over books and screen, thinking, scribbling, the intellectual sweat pouring off of me. That is, she assumes I'm being productive. Sure, I'm not making gobs of money but, somehow, I'm more noble — an artist of a sort. I write!

Little does she know, however, that I I write just as I work: quickly. I'm not the guy who spends hours over a manuscript, agonizing over turns of phrase, furiously editing. I write for a bit here and there — with great delight, mind you — and then I stop.

In reality, I don't do very much in the course of a day. Among other things, I binge watch TV shows. Now, when many hear this, they assume I must be watching quality television when, in reality, I'm watching "Friends" — which really is egregiously horrible. But this doesn't slow me for a moment.

Am I wasting my time? What might that even mean? Why do people assume, even demand, that I be doing something productive?

This all strikes me as so much worldliness — so crass, so silly, so Puritan, so capitalist. What's wrong with just sitting on my couch watching Ross and Chandler's shenanigans? What makes that any better or worse than, say, working 60 hours a week for a branding agency or writing a novel? What are our criteria of judgement?

Me, I just want to feel good and right, to feel present, to be joyous and, if possible, happy. I can feel this, or not, doing any number of things including watching "Friends" reruns ad nauseum. And yet I still feel that tug of humiliation, that sheepishness, that self-loathing. Such is the power of discourse.

My goal these days is to produce less, not more. I don't care about my cultural currency. Or, rather, I do care but I'm beginning not to care. I'm trying not to care. Because it all seems like such nonsense. So you wrote a novel. Great. You took a company IPO. Ok. You knitted another cowl. Power to you. Me, I watched all umpteen seasons of "Friends" in one week.

What is there to produce? What currency of the culture economy do I need to exchange to maintain my good standing — to command respect, a girlfriend, a job? I tend to keep my TV watching and what have you to myself. Until now. Here I am, telling the world, probably to my detriment: I produce close to nothing of any value to anyone and I'm neither ashamed nor proud. I am as I go and I go as well as I can and as I do and that's all there is to it.  

To focus on production is to miss life. Life is not what you make; it's how you go. So perhaps you're joyful working your 80 hours or writing your poems or knitting your wears. Excellent. But your joy is in the doing, not the production per se. Everything gives way. None of this crap matters. And now I have Chandler and Monica's wedding to watch, thank you very much.


αληθεια said...

Isn't this approach a bit too relativistic? It seems to me that the question of choosing Friends over The Wire becomes one of taste (or not)—strong people, according to Nietzsche, surround themselves with things that make them vital. So how does a person learn how to desire and train her instincts in such a way that she only chooses health and vitality?

I see myself surrounded with college students who make bad choices all the time. I had a friend who would play video games for hours, while munching on a big bag of Cheetos. He was pale and skinny, and his body showed signs of his ill health—mental as well as physical. But for him, his lifestyle made him happy.

So then are all lifestyles healthy as long as they make a person happy? And what if that person is wrong in judging the criterion for what makes her healthy?

Daniel Coffeen said...

Good questions and good points: Yes, it's relative to this or that body. But my point, no doubt poorly made, is that "productivity" has an odd hold on us, on me — that we, that I, often feel as if I should be making something, doing something that "matters." When all that actually matters is the how.

Take Friends and The Wire. There are surely miserable people making terrible decisions who love The Wire; to wit, our president. And there are surely beautiful people who love Friends — which seems hard to comprehend as the show is so offensive.

And then there are different modes of watching this or that. I've watched The Wire for its familiarity; I've watched Friends with a turned on, lively critical eye. But, in the end, who cares about either. Both can be beautiful experiences; both are what they are. I don't want to judge myself or others by their contribution to culture. I am not impressed by movie stars, literary stars, or academic stars. I enjoy the people I enjoy because they enjoy what they do.

I had a professor, then colleague, at Cal who many, many, many revere. I found this professor to be a downright terrible human being — petty and weak and vengeful. I'd take Friends of this person any day.

Am I just babbling? Mostly, I'm trying to understand this Taoist notion of wu wei  — action through inaction. The do nothing way. My writing helps me understand it, sometimes.

αληθεια said...

Oh, hmmm….now it actually makes sense to me. It reminds me of my recent travels to the north east. I was looking for apartments in a small college town, and almost every apartment that I toured was kept incredibly filthy by the tenants. What's funny is that most tenants were either PhD students or Law students. So yes, now I get it. No matter how qualified you are, or the type of work that you produce, it doesn't really matter, especially if your apartment stinks of poop.

Thanks for your reply, and thanks as always for your brilliant posts!

PS I would really appreciate your recommendations on some good Tao reading materials.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I've only started two — both are canonical and ancient. One is Thomas Merton, the monk, interpreting Chuang Tzu. Here's a PDF of it: http://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/MertonChuangTzu.pdf

The other is Ursula K. Le Guin's translation of the Tao Te Ching — her notes are hilarious and beautiful. Both books are confounding and exquisite.

Giikla said...

I recognize in myself the same impulse to destroy you reveal here. If some structure, some rationalizing thought of yourself or others, can be razed, then I automatically want to bring it down and then sweep away the rubble. You say all that matters is how things go. Is that because you have not found a structure you could not destroy, so you content yourself watching how they crumble? But what if you or I want to build a wooden house just to live in, to find shelter from the cosmic elements? Do you or I really need to see how it splits under the ax?

The imperative to produce probably has multiple roots. Staying alive does require external work, using energy to obtain more energy. The evolutionary psychology root. In the explicitly class-structured society of the not-so-distant past one was told: if you are a tailor, then you should sew all day. The socio-historical root. Then there is the family-loyalty root: I work hard because my daddy told me to. I guess I shouldn't ignore the capitalist root: you must work so that I can make money off you. I suspect that these are quite weak roots today, at least for some of us.

And they are all somehow Catholic roots. According to them work is a kind of ritual that one performs calmly with the assurance from some mediating authority (biological, societal, parental, market) that the ritual is good. Perhaps today the thickest root is Protestant. Today, for some of us, productive work is our answer to the problem we must face squarely (much as we squirm to meet it obliquely) and without a mediating authority: nothing lasts, we will all die. Work is a way of whistling past the graveyard.

Is this false hope, this averted eye, what you are calling the worldliness of today's impulse to productivity? Surely not the pleasure of work, which, if taking pleasure in work were possible, would redeem it?

By the way, not to be too mysterious here, I am a friend of the diminutive LM. She recommended your blog to me; I've been enjoying it.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Hey Giikla — thanks for reading and adding your two sense, as it were. And any friend of LM's......truly.

I didn't think I was offering a gesture of destruction. I read my "fuck" in the title as a claim to indifference, not destruction — although I suppose destroying is implied. I do believe that people have a focus on "productivity" as a way to distract themselves from living. I think this drive is as religious as it is capitalist: ideology is not just about greed. The profit motive, like organized religion, comes from fear of life. And hence a will not to die — that's too scary — but a will to a living death (hence our obsession with zombies).

What interests me as of late is this Taoist notion of inaction as action, the do-nothing way. I always found it nihilistic but am beginning to believe that it's the opposite: it is thoroughly affirmative, joyful in the Nietzschean sense.

The point I was trying to make, I suppose, is that it doesn't matter what you do; it matters how you do it. Neither watching Friends or writing a novel are inherently better. But what do I know? This is all an essay, my try.